The City Game won’t be played for the second consecutive season in 2020-21, as Pitt rebuffed multiple attempts from Duquesne to play the game, despite pledging to do so in 2019.
The schools have met 87 times in the historic rivalry, and the multi-year break between games will be the first since the teams went three years without playing between 1963 and 1966.
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Why that will happen is significantly less clear.
Thursday offerings from Duquesne head coach Keith Dambrot and athletic director Dave Harper placed the blame squarely in an Oakland ZIP code.
“We’ll play anywhere,” Dambrot said to Pittsburgh Sports Now. “We’ll play in their building for nothing. It’s good for the city. It’s good for our program. It just may not be good for their program.”
A statement from Heather Lyke late on Thursday did little to deflect that blame, saying that Duquesne “did not fit with our non-ACC scheduling model,” whatever that means.
Lyke also said they have offered to play Duquesne at Petersen Events Center in 2021-22, which is the same line she tried to tell everyone a year ago, when Pitt and Duquesne released a joint statement announcing an agreement in principle to play in 2020 and 2021.
So much for principles.
But more so than whatever damage may have been done to Pitt’s reputation in the notoriously cutthroat world of college basketball scheduling, this move strikes me as penny wise and pound foolish for the Panthers.
Pitt will almost assuredly replace Duquesne with a more winnable game on its schedule than the Dukes, who finished their aborted 2019-20 season ranked No. 95 in the country by KenPom.com, 16 spots ahead of the Panthers.
And while KenPom and NET ratings do factor in quality of opponent, when a team is entering its third season under a head coach, there starts to be a level of pressure to show some results in the win column, regardless of the steps taken to get there.
Pitt finished 16-17 last season, two wins better than the 14-19 mark posted in Capel’s first at the helm. But all of that improvement came in ACC play, as Pitt went from 3-15 in 2018-19 to 6-14 this past season.
The ACC isn’t going to get any easier than it was in 2019-20, a historically down season for the league. Capel’s Panthers also suffered some of the churn of modern college basketball, losing experience with the transfer portal departures of shooting guards Trey McGowens and Ryan Murphy. Pitt’s 2020-21 lineup will still have just one senior in it.
So it makes sense for Capel to lighten the load in the non-conference schedule this fall to try to keep the progress moving forward. The Dukes are an awkward fit, because they’re no longer bad enough to be a sure win, though Montana, Niagara and Nicholls State should have taught Pitt there is no such thing.
If that sounds awkwardly close to being afraid to lose, despite Capel’s insistence that he’s afraid to play no one, so be it. It’s the only reasoning that makes any sense. Pitt’s apparent willingness to play in 2021, after three of Duquesne’s five returning starters heading into 2020 have graduated, should make that abundantly clear.
But when approaching things from the bigger picture, flaws in that logic still emerge.
A game against Duquesne at the Pete would be a nearly guaranteed sellout, with crowds in the last few City Games ranging at or over that building’s capacity. Combine the additional ticket sales and concessions with the fact that Pitt wouldn’t have to play Duquesne a buy-game guarantee that can approach $100,000, and it’s clear that the Dukes were offering Lyke and company a significant financial windfall for another crack at their long-time rivals.
In a season where athletic departments could be looking at massive cuts thanks to the loss of football revenue, a few hundred thousand dollars is nothing to sneeze at.
But perhaps even more so than the money, Pitt will also miss out on the additional attention the game brought to the program.
Even when one goes back to the halcyon days of the Jamie Dixon era, Pitt basketball has always struggled to draw eyeballs and fill seats in November and December, while competing with the football team, the Steelers and Penguins for local attention.
And let’s make no mistake about it, Pitt needs the attention. The Panthers averaged 6,749 and 8,825 fans per game in Capel’s first two seasons — about three-fifths of the capacity at the Pete. Pitt still has the ability to draw a crowd. For the 2019 Backyard Brawl against West Virginia, 11,725 showed up. Three nights later, just 6,753 came to see Monmouth. Clearly, the opponent matters at the gate.
The City Game has consistently been one of the handful of times in that time of the year when basketball has not only drawn a crowd, but pushed through to become a major storyline in a football-crazed city, even with Pitt being the dominant team in the arrangement.
In a season where both teams could have legitimate postseason hopes, that could have been enhanced to a factor not seen in quite some time. The City Game has been played for my entire lifetime, and there’s almost no question that the two games left unplayed in 2019 and 2020 would have been amongst the rivalry’s best.
Those games, won or lost, could have forged what was a once quaint, one-sided, regional rivalry into something bigger, like what Cincinnati and Xavier or Philadelphia’s Big Five have. Instead, that opportunity was thrown aside, and who knows how long it will take for it to resurface?
Rivalries make college sports recession proof. Building them and maintaining them gives fans something to look forward to on an annual basis, regardless of what the team’s current record is.
That concept is not a difficult one to understand. So why did Pitt reject it, kicking the rivalry to the curb? That answer remains something of a mystery, but I have a theory.
Basketball coaches retain autonomy over most matters regarding scheduling, and Capel seems to be particularly aggressive about marking that territory as his.
“I have involvement in my schedule,” Capel said when asked about the lack of a 2019 game in December. “It’s my schedule, so I have involvement in that.”
But he’s not the only person this decision impacts, and Lyke has influence, if not absolute authority, in all things that happen in her athletic department. In her time at Pitt, Lyke has done a fantastic job of reshaping a Pitt athletic department that could only be described as a disaster before she arrived. As part of those badly needed changes, Lyke has made nearly full-scale personnel changes.
But those people are new to those jobs, and perhaps more critically, are new to Pittsburgh.
Capel has been in Pittsburgh since 2018, Lyke since 2017. Men’s basketball sport administrator Chris Hoppe also came to Pittsburgh in 2017. Of the 11 people listed in Pitt’s staff directory as serving in Lyke’s office as an assistant or associate athletic director, only four predate her tenure.
Perhaps there just aren’t enough Pittsburgh people in Pitt’s athletic department that can understand the unique challenges of building a basketball program in what is decidedly a football and hockey town.
When Ben Howland and company started the venture that created the most successful period in Pitt Basketball history, they opened Petersen Events Center with a game against the Dukes. Howland survived just fine going 4-1 against Duquesne. Dixon never lost to the Dukes, going 13-0, while leveraging neutral-site wins at the building now known as PPG Paints Arena to help boost his teams’ RPI rating.
Playing Duquesne is clearly not an impediment to long-term basketball success. Howland, Dixon and every other Pitt coach since Doc Carlson figured that out.
Someone should have found a way to convince Capel.